Archive for May, 2011

A Story About Blood 1-10+bonus

Posted in A Story About Blood with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by jeremiah james strawhand

This is the first ten chapters of my new story plus a bonus chapter that fits in somewhere.

Prologue

I don’t know anything.

My experiences do not culminate in a greater understanding.

My years have not made me wiser, only more aware of my own glaring faults.  You may say I am self-absorbed but how else can I be?  There has never been anything as constant as me.  My father died with an axe through his skull and I watched him as he pissed himself and shook with death.  My revenge was short lived and it didn’t bring him back.  He toasts with Odin or Freyja.  My love and child were taken by plague and there is no peace for them.

I sometimes wonder that the world has outlived me. That maybe I am someone’s ghost or vision.

Ghost or not, I haunt this place.  The people here don’t like me.  They can tell it by my smell.  I came to seek a new life and yet I beg in the streets.  I have no skill other than war.  They can see the death in my eyes and they do not pity me.   If they knew me I’m sure they would run me through in my sleep.

Self-doubt can be a valuable asset or a miserable curse.  Never believe too much in your own ideas or you will surely find disappointment.    I used to believe in the glory of battle, and the power of the gods.  I wonder now if Odin smiles or frowns; if there is anyone laughing with us.

Disease is everywhere in this section of town.  The place I don’t get run out of.  The place where the sick, dying, and poor are welcome, and yet there are no welcoming arms.  They say that this used to be the wealthy area before the earth shook.  The former epicenter of an epicenter.   Now the buildings crumble to the touch and the rats that live among us vie for the same scraps.

I came to leave the blood behind and found it follows me.  Dark cloud or raging torrent.

This is a story about blood.

Chapter 1 Tides

Do you believe in fate?

Sometimes I think about all the choices I have made, every minute detail and insignificant point, and wonder if I changed any one of them how different my life would be.   Sometimes something so profound happens to you that it becomes impossible to imagine life any other way and sometimes even to remember what life was like before it.

Sometimes our choices are made for us, but usually we are just too shortsighted to predict their outcome.  Most people act purely on impulse…

My name is Kol.  When I was a young boy a strange thing happened to me.   I was playing in the stream that ran near my village when I saw the sun catch on something.  A single brilliant beam of light reflecting through the murk I had stirred up.  I reached my tiny hand into the water and pulled out what was a gleaming white, roughly rectangular object marked with unfamiliar runes.  I would later find out that it was a coffin.  A miniature coffin fashioned of the purest ivory.

I immediately ran home in childish excitement to show my mother what I had found, finding something entirely else.  For this to make sense you must understand that our family’s hut was set near the edge of town, and the path there was infrequently travelled and that anyone could have come and gone without much notice.   Anyway, I burst through the door yelling “Mommy, mommy, look wh…” but that was as far as I made it.  My mother was home and well, but there was a man I had never seen before standing behind her with his pants around his ankles, and she was bent over in front of him with her dress pulled up and her hands on the fireplace.

Not a second passed before the man took two steps towards me and shattered my jaw with a mighty fist.  It is true, we were all raised to fight, but I was just a little thing.  There was nothing I could do.

When I awoke, I felt like my face was a solid object.  Like someone had replaced it with a rock or a tree stump and all the individual parts had become one.  Someone was shaking me and among the many voices, I picked out my father’s.  It was trembling and he kept asking me “What happened here?  Who did this?”  I tried to open my eyes and found that I could not.  I tried to speak and found that my mouth wouldn’t move and my tongue felt 20 sizes too big.  I thought I would choke.  I thought I couldn’t breathe.  I managed to force one of my eyes open a slit and saw my father’s face with tears streaming down it for a brief moment before I succumbed again to blackness.

The next time I awoke it was to the sound of thunder.   A deep rumbling boom shook the ground and I could smell the electricity in the air as my hair stood on end.  I opened my eyes to find an old woman with a heavily scarred face and wispy hair standing over me.  She held a jeweled staff and I recognized her as a Vala, a seer.  I had never personally interacted with a Vala before, but they had come to the village from time to time to cast spells at the behest of other villagers.

The old woman, noticing that I was awake, began to speak.  “I am Unn, the Wise”, she began, “and I have been called here by your father and the village elder because they believe you are cursed. Are you cursed, child?” she asked with an unnerving grin.

It was at this time that I first noticed I was lying naked, except for my undergarments, on the stone slab near the stream that we sometimes used for sacrifices or executions.   A fire crackled behind Unn and several beautiful girls mesmerizingly pulsated around it.

I watched as she reached her hand into the fire and pulled out the ivory coffin, uttering some phrase I couldn’t understand.  She then took my hand and placed the coffin in it, forcing it closed.  I screamed as my flesh began to boil and yet she only forced me to close my hand more tightly.  I was too weak to offer much resistance.

“This…trinket…they feel, stole away your mother’s breath and brought a curse upon your life.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying…too much pain…she must have sensed this and released her grip, so I instantly threw the coffin away, gazing at my ruined hand.

“You’ll want to keep that, boy, and keep it close.  I don’t know if you were cursed, but by this ritual you are now bound to that coffin and it to you.  It will bear the curse in your place, but only if it remains intact…”

I shifted back to her words from a moment before and replaced the pain in my body with pain in my soul.  “…My mother’s…”

“Dead.” she said.  “Raped and murdered.  They think it was a demon, and wonder why your life was spared.  Maybe you belong to him now.”  I can see a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Not a demon: a man, I thought.  Just a man.   I saw him clear as day.  He had blue eyes and glass beads in his beard.   I wasn’t yet familiar with rape, but in hindsight I can clearly say that she was willing.

I wanted to cry but no tears would come.  My heart iced over.

“Your hand will heal in time, and a scar will form.  They’ll call you Kol DeathHand.” the old crone chuckled. “A fitting name for one such as you.”

Chapter 2: Ashes

I had carried this trinket for what seemed like ever.  This…coffin.  A symbol of death.  The reason for my terrible name.  I had often wondered why someone would have crafted this.   Why would anyone want a constant reminder of their own fragile mortality?

I had turned it over so many times in my fingers that the edges are worn and the once gleaming white is now a dull shade of gray.

I took off my glove, despite the chill in the air, and traced the scar in the palm of my hand.   Around and around until it was raw and sore.  And then I traced it some more.  That vicious scar caused by that miserable object…

That coffin.

I had spent countless nights wondering if I should just throw it away, or smash it to pieces, or destroy it in a bonfire, or bury it in the earth…

…and more time yet trying to keep it safe.

It took me many years to even consider that it had no value to me.   That maybe I bore no curse.  The old woman had clearly said she didn’t know.  She didn’t even know!  Why would she do this to me, knowing that she didn’t know anything at all?

It took me years after that to think that maybe she had cursed me herself, and manipulated me…controlled my entire life with this stinking chunk of ivory.

I drilled a hole through it once so that I could wear it around my neck back at a time that I wanted people to see it, for fear can be a great ally, I thought.  I was afraid, though, that if I changed it in any way, the magic might wear off and the curse would take me.  I spent months, maybe years, debating the issue.   When my son died, I decided that no curse could be worse than the life I had been given and, though I meant to destroy it, lost my nerve and drilled the hole instead.

That was as close as I ever came to being done with it.

She is dead now, I’m sure of it, that fetid wench.  How could she be alive all these years later, being so ancient as I remember her?

Unn…Unn…Unn…You rotten whore.  You filthy old corpse, where are you now?  Did you laugh into the grave, thinking of me?   Did I kill all of your enemies?  Have I spilled enough blood?  Have I crawled through enough putrid swamps, suffered enough festering wounds?  Crushed enough skulls? Extinguished enough lives?

How many have I sent to the halls of the gods, and will they be there waiting for me, conspiring against me?

I tightened my fist until my nails tear the skin and clenched my jaw until my teeth threatened to crack.

Not even the other beggars will talk to me, this hulking monster of a man that I am.  They call me the Warlock, I don’t know why.  If there was any magic in these bones I’d have spent it long ago.

They avert their eyes when they near, and they murmur when they pass, these insipid swine.  I try to stay away from them, so that their sickness does not pass to me.   I try to find a dark place, where I can lick my myriad wounds in peace.  Yet there are too many of them here, always shuffling here and there, moaning and crying out to whatever gods they believe in and beating on their chests.    It seems like the guards have a never ending supply of them to toss, beaten and bruised, through the gates that mark this place.

Sometimes one stands out, like maybe they don’t belong here, but usually it’s all the same:  filthy rags and unkempt hair, flea-bitten scraps of cloth where shoes should be…and a look in their eyes.  An unmistakable look of despair.  No one comes here willingly, but few ever leave.  A one-way ticket, this trip to Old Turtannus, where the sick, the destitute, and the misfits come to spend their pathetic lives.

Deathhand or Warlock, I’d rather they just called me Kol.

Chapter 3 Blood Lust

I didn’t talk much after my mother died.  It took a long time for my jaw to properly heal, and I didn’t really have much to say.

My father kept asking me if I had seen anything, but I didn’t tell him I knew who it was.  I didn’t tell them I saw anything at all.  I wanted to destroy his family and burn his crops.  I wanted to ruin his life and I wanted to do it quietly.  I wanted him to think he was cursed, and then I wanted to watch the life drain from his eyes just as recognition entered them.

Even as a boy, I was capable of these thoughts.

My life had been changed forever, and I became consumed with this banal desire for revenge.

No fire had ever burned more brightly.

My father knew that something was wrong with me.  I think he might have had me killed if he weren’t afraid of the consequences for killing a demon’s thrall.   Maybe he thought he, too, would be cursed.  The few times we did talk in those early months, he couldn’t stop his eyes from wandering first to the patchwork mess that had become the right side of my face and then to the glistening red horror show that was my hand.  He made no attempt to disguise his disgust.

I somehow managed to turn this pain into rage.  Not some silly fist-flying, stomping rage, but rather seething and boiling just below the surface.  I used my experience to improve, or so I thought.

And so I practiced.  I discovered that I could go from calm and collected to venom-striking ferocity in a split second and all I had to do was glance at my hand, or feel the severed tendons pulling at that ugly grimacing mask I called a smile.

When no one was around I would take my father’s sword and axe and go out into the fields or the forest and pretend that every blade of grass or chirping insect was that man.  That man that had taken my mother away and made my father resent me.

That man with the beads in his beard and the piercing blue eyes.   That man with the blonde hair braided near his temple on the left side.  That man who’s red cape had been left on, probably so as not to waste unnecessary time.  That man who’s gemmed brooch momentarily reflected the last time I would see my face in one piece.  That man who’s red and blue shield leaned in the corner in front of his long spear with the black haft.

He came ready for war, and war he would have.

I was sure that the details that had been etched into my mind as if they had been carved in immortal stone would be enough for me to find him.  I realized that it might take some time…some planning to do it right.  What I didn’t realize was that the very moment that I had decided on this course of action I had left my childhood behind and that I would never find it again.  What I didn’t realize was that this quest for revenge or reprisal or retaliation or what have you would mark the beginning of the rest of my life: that I was only setting the tone for who I would be from there on out; that I was following exactly the destiny prescribed to me, good little boy that I was.

Skuld, guide my hand.

Chapter 4: Echoes

“Ain’t nothin’ out there”, yelled the beggar that everyone referred to as The Fool.

“Ain’t nothin’ in there”, replied someone from up above, followed by some raucous laughter, but The Fool paid no attention.

I sat in my usual corner with my hood pulled up over my head, peering out into the street at the man.   How elemental a name, I thought, for this man.  This Fool.  Every so often he could be heard ranting and raving about some nonsense or another, until someone got tired of hearing him and kicked him in the ribs a few times.

“Ain’t nothin’ out there”, he repeated, “and ain’t no reason for any of it.  They throw us in here like crim’nals but they dun know we got it better.  Ain’t nothin’ out there but a storm cloud comin’ to wash it all away.”

As if on cue, at that moment, the clouds that had been hovering overhead broke and rain began to pour into the streets, washing the garbage and the awful smell away, if only for a little while.  I don’t want to move.  I want to just sit here and let it wash over me.  Let it soak into my skin and bones and drown my heart and soul.  If it cannot wash me clean then let it take me away from this place.  Let the cold sink in and drive out what life yet remains…

But I still have a purpose yet, no?  Enough with the whining self-pity I’ve grown so accustomed to.  Enough with the ‘O gods, let me drown in this Sea of Despair’ poetic nonsense.   Stand up, Kol, and prove that you aren’t as miserable as you pretend to be.  Prove that you aren’t just some other worthless wretch infecting this place.

As I stood up, someone threw a piece of trash which hit The Fool squarely in the forehead as they yelled, “Look watcha did ya crazy old bastard.”

Look what you did indeed.  Forced me out my reverie to seek shelter from the storm.

…and you just stand there, dazed and gaping like a fish.

I intentionally pushed passed him on my way out of the alley causing him to stumble and fall backwards on his ass.  I glance down at him as I pass by and I can see that his lips are trembling.

Pathetic.

No use for you here, old man.  Find some corner to die in.

I hurry down the street towards the Troll’s Breath Tavern.   A haven for degenerates and criminals, but you can find anything you want there- except peace of mind.

But peace of mind was the last thing I wanted.  The incident had stirred up some of that old fury: stinging at my eyes and burning at my throat.   The taste of bile and blood.  The crunch of hammer against bone and axe against shield.

The people here didn’t know me.  Didn’t know the things I had done or what I was capable of.  Maybe it was time they found out.

I sat at a small table in the corner and ordered a mug of mead.  They don’t know what good mead is here, but anything is better than nothing, I thought.   The wench made eye contact only for a moment and then looked away.   I was used to this treatment, but I smirked anyway.   No one wanted to look at me, and I didn’t blame them.

I sat by myself in the corner and listened.   I waited for something to catch my interest, but in a place like this people guard their conversations carefully.  A glance around the place wouldn’t reveal its true nature.  A couple at a table with enjoined hands.  A few men drinking and laughing.  A group gathered by the fireplace for some game of chance, but it wasn’t the obvious ones you had to look out for.  It was the ones like me.  The quiet men sitting alone, or the few whispering over dimly lit tables.

A few mugs later and I was ready to give up when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned, not knowing what to expect and found a skinny little man with a hooked nose and pale lips gazing back. He nodded towards a table on the opposite edge of the tavern and said, “The master would like to have a word with you.”

A cursory assessment of the table showed four men looking in my direction, one of whom I recognized as the one they called Brand The Bloodless, for he was as pale as death’s shadow, they said.  He had a reputation around town as a particularly vicious man, with a hand in many of the less-than-public dealings that went on.

“Good,” I thought, “Exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

I stood and turned to nod at the sniveling rat behind me before making my way across the bar.

Chapter 5 – Traces

Do you ever feel like you will never experience anything new?   Like you are doomed to forever drone on through your meaningless life, even while you chase after some fading dream?  Sometimes the things you desire, the things you covet most, whether physical or psychological or ideological, the things for which you would give up everything and tear out the bloody roots with broken fingernails are the very things that will perpetuate the same stagnation you detest.

It had been about 3 years since my mother was killed.

At first, I was as ardent as the winter wolf stalking my elusive prey.  When my father would go off to the fields for the day I would immediately sneak out, first in one direction, then the other, then circling around.  I kept to the shadowy places around the main roads, waiting, watching and biding my time.

Any time someone passed by with a glimpse of red or blue, I watched them intently.  Anytime I saw the shimmer of metal or the glint of gem my eyes became transfixed as I scrambled for a closer view.   I learned to come and go without being seen.  I learned to move silently and use misdirection to my advantage.  A creeping little rodent with bloodshot eyes and a rabid bite, waiting for the right time to strike.

But it never came.

One time I arrived at a road just as a man with a red cape passed by on horseback and I followed his trail for days with no food and no water.   I came to the place that he had gone, some tiny snowbound hamlet, and hunted him down, finding him in his bed. I gazed upon a stranger’s face, my blade in my teeth.  Not a demon.  Not a murderer.  No glass beads or eyes of deepest ocean blue.  Just a man with a red cape.

Just a traveller sleeping soundly.

Be still, my heart.

Just a man.

It was all I could do to contain the rage and stop my hands from violently shaking.  I said I had learned that I could easily bring it on, not turn it off.

I thought I could see into this man’s mind and soul by peering through the blood haze, this fog that simultaneously obstructed and clarified my vision.  I thought he was an enemy.  I thought he stood between me and my quest for revenge.  I thought he meant to stop me, or alert his master that I was coming for him.  I thought he had reached for his blade or yelled for the guards.

I thought he had awoken.

I leaped back as the blood soaked through the rented bed the man had peacefully slept in, unaware of my presence until my dagger found his throat.

He couldn’t scream.

He gasped and choked as his eyes snapped open in horror, and he looked at me, confused…lost, as I stood over him panting like a wild beast, and I saw that his eyes were brown.  As unmistakably brown as the very earth into which his blood now seeped.

Soon the man would cease to gasp and soon that smell of iron, pass.

Soon the crimson’d turn to rust, ash to ash, dust to dust.

As I watched the man die, I couldn’t help but think about how alone he must be.   Had he been going home to see his son after a long absence?  Was he dreaming of his wife’s embrace?

This man had done nothing to me.

I did not know him and never would.  No matter how much I rationalized my actions there was some tiny far off place that felt some sting of remorse.

But enough of those thoughts…were he meant to live he would have awakened.  He would have reacted.  He would have caught my scent on his trail and left me crippled in the wilderness.  He would have done something other than lay there and die.

He was still struggling a bit and had managed to pull the knife from his wound.  He had his hands clamped around his throat, desperately clinging to what light he had left.

Pathetic.

Don’t fight it.  It’s over.

Give my regards to Lady Holle.

Chapter 6:  A New Beginning

It was dusk when I first saw the city gates looming in the distance.    The orange glow of the watch fire embers twinkled and tiny plumes of smoke rose above the walls.   Before the gates green fields and farm land spread out and the workers were beginning to stir for the day’s labor.

I stumbled onto the main road that led to the city, dragging my wounded leg along and leaving a trail of jagged crimson in the dust behind me.   I was stripped, except for a loincloth, the mark of a “barbarian.”  I had no weapons and no valuables aside from the ivory coffin which I had taken from one of my captors before I had fled.  I had nothing to offer anyone.

I didn’t have any sort of plan…I was just walking blindly towards what seemed like the only salvation that would have me.  Maybe it was a sign: this enormous city rising slowly as I plodded along.   Step, drag, step, drag, step, step, drag.  Maybe it was a sign: this stalwart bulk of stone and oak.  The smoke drew up like great arms in the sky, welcoming me home.

As I continued down the road, people began to stop and stare, and call out to one another.   I could understand only bits and pieces of that they said, but I didn’t really care anyway.  A few mangy dogs had begun following me and licking up the blood that dripped behind.

As I got closer to the city, I could see a mass of guards assembled near the gate.  I stopped at about 30 paces so that I could try and focus but the sudden loss of momentum caused my injured leg to crumple and I stumbled to my knees, stopped from eating a mouthful of dust only by my hands which quaked and threatened to give.

No one said a word.   They just stood there, watching me.  Maybe it was out of some sense of schadenfreude or maybe they just had no idea how to react.

One of the dogs that had been trailing me seeing this moment of weakness as an opportunity, came behind me and chomped at my leg.  I was not so beaten as to let some mutt take bites out of me and I pushed myself back to my feet, kicking the dog with my good leg, while grimacing through the pain that this sent through my bad one.

I turned around to find a man staring me down.  He wore a similar uniform to the rest of the guards but in addition to the leather armor and grey and blue shields, he also donned a royal blue cape.

I intended to continue my stumbling gait toward the group but the what-I-assumed-to-be guard captain interrupted my plans by smirking, “What brings you to our fine city, traveler?”

I could tell by the expression on his face that he didn’t care what I had to say, and I knew I couldn’t tell him the truth.

I began to speak but choked instead, coughing out a spray of blood.

As good a time as any, I thought, and the world turned upside down.

When I awoke I was lying flat on my back and a dim lantern swung on a chain above my head, casting eerie shadows across the ceiling.

I tried to lift my head but something prevented me.  I tried to struggle to my elbows but found that my arms were bound.

“He’s…he’s awake, master,” trembled a young girl’s voice.

“Well, I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do about that now,“ said a man’s voice.

Suddenly, the face of a middle-aged man appeared above me.  He had cloud-grey hair neatly combed back at the temples and a furrowed brow.  “It’s unfortunate that you’re awake.  We’re only mid-way through the procedure, and this is going to hurt.”

“…are you a healer or a butcher, old man?” I asked, a bit unsure of my fate.

The man laughed heartily, saying, “A bit of both, friend.  I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but no one else would tend to you.  Edwin, the Barber, they call me.  And this pretty little thing over here is my assistant, Marie.”

I was able to turn my head just enough to catch a glimpse of a small fair-haired girl wearing a blood-streaked blue dress, before having to rest again.

“We found this bauble stuffed into your garment.  Some sort of coffin, yes?  It should make for adequate payment.”

“You can’t have it,” I growled as I focused my strength and snapped the band that held my right arm in place.

I reached for the strap that held my other arm and as I attempted to undo it I felt a small set of hands wrap around my arm.  I swung wildly and impacted with the girl as she tried to restrain me, knocking her into a shelf on the side of the room and several bottles clanged and smashed onto the floor.

“Owww….he’s strong,” Marie said as she rubbed the place where her head had hit the shelf.

“Easy, friend,” said the barber quickly, “we aren’t here to hurt you.  If that coffin isn’t acceptable payment we can find another way to settle your debt, when you’re healed.   For now, you need to relax and let us finish the operation.”

“Alright,” I began, struggling against the void that threatened to take me after my sudden burst of exertion, “but…you can’t have it.”

“We’ll worry about that later…for now, hopefully I can coax Marie here into getting back into arm’s reach from you.   Is it alright if I strap you down again?  I’m afraid you may hurt yourself further if I don’t.”

I nodded, realizing I didn’t have the energy to escape, even were I not bound.

“Excellent.  Now let’s get on with it,” said the barber as he bound my arm with a piece of rope. “Marie, if you would?”

I don’t remember much about the next few hours.  The lantern continued to cast its demonic shadows while I drifted in and out of consciousness.   Cutting and stitching and cutting and stitching again and finally the touch of cold steel against my skin followed by more stitching.

I could hear the barber saying, “This’ll make me famous, love, if it works.  A soldier’s best friend, ” but I was too out of it to even ponder what he meant.

After what seemed like days or weeks of being strapped to this table I finally awoke with some clarity.

I went to lift my head, expecting the restraint to stop me and found that I was free.  A wool blanket covered me from waist to toe and I saw Marie seated at a small desk in the corner of the room.  The room itself was filled top to bottom with shelves of various shapes and sizes, some containing books and others unfamiliar bottles or instruments.

She glanced at me before calling into the next room, “Master, it’s time.”

Not a moment passed before the barber entered the room and said “How are you feeling?  Better I assume?”

“Ughh…I feel like I’ve been sleeping for a lifetime…am I…better, then?”

“Better, yes.  Much better I hope.  Can you sit up?”

“I think so,” I said as I leaned first on my elbows and then rose to a sitting position.

“Good,” said the barber as he handed me a cup of water.  “Drink that.  It will put some life in you.   Marie, go and fix dinner, yes?” he commanded, without diverting his attention from me. ” It hasn’t been easy getting you to eat, you know.”

“The coffin…is it safe?”

“Safe?  Yes.  I wouldn’t risk upsetting you again seeing what you could do half-dead and strapped to a table,” Edwin said, as he retrieved the coffin from a shelf and handed it to me.  “An odd thing for you to be carrying, that.  You are a Northman, no?  Do you know what it says?”

I shook my head.   I could read some runes, but these were alien to me.

“It’s a poem of sorts.  It says ‘’Cross the fields and passed the lake, there my lovely lady lays.  Flower bloom and flower wilt, my lovely lady’s blood was spilt.  Icy night and moon-bit dawn, my lovely lady’s head was gone.  Who has done this, who had the right?  I join my lovely lady tonight.’  Sad, no? “

Nonsense, I thought.  Only a coward takes his own life.  I pushed the blanket down so that I could stow the coffin in my pants only to find that I wasn’t wearing any and then I saw it: it looked like a piece of chainmail with stitching poking through it draped over my leg where the wound had been.  I reached down to remove it when the barber stopped me.  “Oh, right, that.  You can’t take it off, it’s been grafted into your skin.  Think of it as a kind of permanent armor.  How does it feel?”

“It hurts…take it off.”

“I…uhhh.   I’m afraid that…uhh.  I’m afraid that that’s impossible.  It’s been stitched into your muscles and ligaments and…they’ve grown into it.  It’s a…it’s a part of you now.  There was no other way.  Can you stand up?”

“So…I can’t take this off…ever?”

“Well…no.   You have to understand…I’m not a surgeon.  This was the only way I could keep you together. ..by…by the way, while you were out some slavers came looking for you.  The guards sent them right to me.   I paid them off to keep you here…they said you killed a lot of them…it wasn’t cheap, you know?”

I wasn’t really sure what to think.  I could count the people I had met in my life that I could trust on one hand.   All I knew was that this armor in my leg made it feel like I was constantly walking through a thorn bush.  I supposed there was an upside though.

I stood up and put some weight on the leg and pain immediately shot up the side of my body.  It started off as rather intense but quickly turned into more of a dull ache.  I could deal with it.  “What happens if it breaks?  Can it be repaired?”

Edwin nodded, saying “You should be able to repair it much the same as you would repair standard chainmail.  If you can’t do it then feel free to come back here and I’ll do it for you.  There is the matter of your…debt we’ve yet to talk about.  You can start by helping out around here with some odd jobs – fixing up the outside of the shop, running errands, that sort of thing.”

“Master, dinner is ready,” called Marie from the other room.

“Ahh…excellent.  You must be starved.  We can talk more later.   For now, let’s go eat.”

Chapter 7:  Banahogg

It was around the time of my tenth birthday that my father decided I was old enough to go to war, but the village elder had decided that I needed more training as I would be a liability to the other warriors without it.  I had kept my own practice as secretive as possible, and surely no one knew that I stalked the roads or paid special attention to particular passers-by.

My father’s idea of ‘training’ was to pluck out my remaining milk teeth, of which there were five (not four, not six: five), one at a time, with a pair of tongs and a hammer.

Now that I was a man, he said, I was allowed the honor of wielding my great-great-great-grandfather’s sword, Thursbanr or ogre-slayer.  My father took this opportunity to tell the oft-recited tale of Banahogg The Ogre, as I sat with a rag stuffed in my mouth to catch the blood that dripped from the empty sockets where my teeth had been.

“Back when the world was a simpler place there was born a seventh son of a seventh son, Asvald, your great -great-great-great-grandfather,” he began.   “That fair-haired baby grew into a child, and that child into a man.  He grew tall and strong, quick as a hare and handsome as Balder himself.   One day, as he was out hunting for game, he fell through the earth into a cavern that had been dug in ancient times past by a spirit of the mountain.   As he searched for a way out, he stumbled upon a skeleton still clutching the haft of a beautiful sword.  Asvald took the sword and climbed out of the cavern to continue on his hunt.

“Now, for years there had been rumor of an ogre named Banahogg that terrorized surrounding villages, maiming the peasants and eating their livestock.  They said he had been violently born as the offspring of an ice giant and a human, abandoned by both, wanted by neither.  Asvald’s village frequently made sacrifices to Tyr for protection and, until one cold winter’s night, it had worked.

“It was far past midnight when the animals began to stir and rustle and bleat and whinny.    The dogs growled and howled and several villagers had grabbed their arms and begun to peer out into the night, torches in hand.  From the distant hills came a boom, boom, BOOM, BOOM, getting closer and closer until Banahogg’s forsaken form could barely be seen stomping towards them and swinging his massive axe to and fro, knocking away trees and boulders.   His eyes glowed red as a blood moon and from his miserable black maw several jagged teeth bit through the darkness.

“He was as tall as three men and as powerful as a whispering oak.    A kick from his mighty leg could crush any man and a blow from his axe could cleave a longship in two.  As the men of the village prepared for the inevitable assault, Banahogg roared a deafening roar that shattered the silence like a thunderbolt and called out ‘I’ve come for blood, you frail sacks of meat, and I shall have it!’  One by one the men fell to Banahogg’s tremendous strength and not a single able-bodied man was left standing save your great-great-great-great-grandfather, who lay asleep in his bed, still drunk from celebration the night before.

“When the morning came Asvald awoke to find his children and livestock slaughtered and his village in ruins.  His wife wept with his only surviving son and when she saw that he had awoken she ran over, beating him with her fists and calling him lazy, worthless, drunk and any name you can imagine until she was out of breath.

“Now, Asvald began to believe that he was nothing but a worthless drunk after all and decided that the only way to atone himself would be to take up his sword and hunt the ogre down, killing him in his own black lair.

“And so, on the night of the full moon, Asvald set out to slay Banahogg.  He followed the ogre’s giant tracks for three days and three nights when he found himself knee-deep in a foul bog, awash with insects and the nauseating smell of decaying plant and animal matter.   After a week spent wandering around in that muck he came to dry place- an island of bone and ash.

“Warily, he crept out of the mire to a place where the bones were piled high and he could get a better view of his surroundings.   In the distance, a raging bonfire burned and Asvald could see Banahogg’s monstrous bulk asleep on its far side.

“Slowly, slowly, carefully, he proceeded to close the distance between himself and the ogre, picking every step so as not to make a sound but he could not keep the bones beneath him from rattling and shaking and falling into one another.   When he was within striking distance of the beast, he began to draw his blade, intent to slay the ogre in his sleep, but found that it had become jammed in the scabbard and he could not pull it out.

“As he struggled to retrieve his sword, the bones beneath him gave and he slipped, falling backwards and making a terrible racket.  Banahogg awoke immediately, and sprang to his feet.  When he saw Asvald lying on the ground, his sword still stuck in his scabbard, he began to laugh a deep, menacing, laugh so powerful that the bones all around clattered and shook from the vibration.  ‘You’ve come to kill me…ME?  Banahogg, son of an ice giant, destroyer of mortal men, and you cannot even draw your sword to strike me?’  He laughed again, for a long minute, while Asvald lay on the ground, paralyzed by fear.

“Banahogg said ‘Well, you’ve been enough entertainment for the night, now you will make a tasty snack!’ and reached down to crush poor Asvald in his hand when, just at that moment, Thursbanr was freed from its scabbard and thrust into the ogre’s palm.  ‘GrrrRRRAHHHHH!’ Banahogg roared, grabbing his injured hand.  ‘Now you die!’ he said as Asvald scrambled to his feet and raised his shield.

“Banahogg’s crushing fist pushed Asvald backwards thirty paces through the piles of bones, cracking his shield into splinters and yet he remained unharmed.   Banahogg grabbed his axe and charged forward with all the power a half-giant could muster but when he was within only one mammoth step from Asvald, his enormous weight sunk through the bone and into the mire causing him to trip and fall.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandfather saw this as the one chance he would get and swung Thursbanr with all his might, severing Banahogg’s right arm.   Banahogg, in great pain, shrieked so loudly that the sky split open and it began to pour down rain as his severed arm wriggled like a serpent, the axe still in its grasp.  His foot still caught, the ogre looked up just as Asvald was bringing Thursbanr down on his skull.  A great miscalculation on Asvald’s part, as no sword forged by mortal hand could have pierced that ogre’s crown and all he succeeded at doing was making Banahogg even angrier.

“Knowing that his undoing was at hand, Banahogg summoned his remaining strength and forced his leg free from its swampy prison.   Rising to his feet, the ogre bared his awful teeth and breathed his awful breath then reached down to pick up his own severed arm, intending to free his axe from its grasp.  Yet, Asvald was quick with his blade and swung again while Banahogg shielded himself with the arm.  The blade struck true, lopping off the severed arm’s hand and sending the axe clanging to the bones which made a peculiar sound that no normal man should ever have to hear.

“But Banahogg would not be beaten so easily so he used what he had at hand (harharhar) and swung the arm like a club, sending poor Asvald rolling and tumbling head over heels and causing him, too, to lose his weapon somewhere in the pile of bone.   Asvald, taking the ogre’s cue, found two fragmented bones with jagged edges to defend himself.

“The two clashed again, with Asvald’s superior speed being his only boon, allowing him to dodge Banahogg’s lumbering strikes, and stabbing again and again at his legs with the sharpened bones.  Eventually, both man and beast became tired and Asvald, fearing defeat, remembered the slaughter of his family and the destruction of his village and tapped into a well of strength he hadn’t know he had.

“Finding his lost sword among the glistening bones, Asvald took advantage of his newfound strength and said “No, ogre, now YOU die!” before taking one great swing and severing Banahogg’s miserable head which fumed and sputtered as it rolled onto the ground.

“Asvald slumped down near the bonfire after cleaning his blade on the ogre’s tunic and then slept in that forsaken place for two days before recovering enough to begin the journey home.”

My father sighed a heavy sigh, having finished the tale, saying “Big shoes to fill, Kol, and I’m not sure that you will do the name justice, but this sword, Thursbanr, is now yours.  May it serve you well.”

I soon drifted off the sleep to battle ogres all night long and entertain thoughts that I could one day be like my ancestor, Asvald, Thursbanr always at my side.

Chapter 8 – Nighstalker

Finally a bit of good fortune to punctuate my usual run of bad.

Brand had said that this would be a test. A measure of my skill.

He had said he needed someone just like me to carry out a few odd jobs here and there.  Someone without any ties to this place and someone with nothing to lose.

…nothing to lose…

I had watched and I had waited.  I knew where he slept and where he shit.  I knew who he talked to and I knew who his enemies were.  I had painted a map in my mind of the paths he took, the streets he avoided, the places he went to seek shelter from a storm.

The candle flickered its last flicker and a sent a tiny wisp of blue smoke curling into the room and I knew that it was time to go.  Tonight was the night, there was no turning back.  I pushed out into a chilly night with no moon.  It was dark and oppressively damp and the cobblestones twinkled with the moisture.

He would be asleep now.  There would be no noise and no struggle.  No witnesses and no clues to point to me.

As I crept through the night, stalking the shadows, I heard footsteps around the next corner.  Before I could even see their torch light I ducked into an alley and waited for them to pass.  Crouched low in the alley, I watched the guards go by, the only sound being the tapping of their boots against the cobble.   I supposed they had nothing to talk about after so long of walking these same streets together…how many times can you comment on the luminance of the moon or the chill in the air?  How many times a week can you talk about what your kid did at school; what you ate for dinner?  Anyone’s company gets boring after a while, and you can accept that or deny it, but your opinion can’t change the truth.  That girl that you love so much and can’t wait to see tonight?  Some day that girl will be the woman you can’t stand.  Some day that girl will be the woman you wish you had the balls to pay someone like me to get rid of.

Believe it.

Anyways, when they had passed, I slipped back out onto the street to continue to the place that I knew he would be sleeping peacefully, dreaming up the nonsense that he spewed day in and day out, this wretch of a man.

As I passed the blacksmith, I heard a shout in the distance and the alarm bells began to sound.

Lights twinkled on in every window and turret and tower.

A trap, this.

Brand, you’ve set me up, you spineless bastard.  I knew I didn’t trust you.  But…maybe not.  Maybe this is just coincidence.  So close now, maybe I can still finish the job.  Maybe this is part of the test.  Speed is now my greatest ally.

I am not as stealthy as I once was, despite my practice as a boy.  This armored leg has made me slower…less agile.  Less quiet.  But there was no more need for stealth.  Move in, find the mark, kill him and slip away.  Quick as an arrow.

I can see the stable from here.  Behind it, I knew The Fool would still be asleep, comfortable in his bed of hay.  A quick few steps across the street and around the corner and…damn…there he is, sitting up, awake.

A look of shock on that wizened old face.

Neither of us exchange a word, just a glance.  I think he knows why I’m here.

Your time is up, nothing personal.

I reach behind to pull out the knife that Brand’s croney had given me.  A silver dagger with a pearl handle.  I’m supposed to leave it where the guards can find it.

He doesn’t move.  He doesn’t cry for help.  He knows why I’m here and he accepts his fate.

An admirable quality…for a fool.

I have no love for this man and yet I find that I hesitate, for the briefest of moments.  Self doubt can be a miserable  curse.

“Warlock…” he finally says, “You will find no peace.”

One second later and it’s over.  The blade punctures his heart and he dies with a blank look on his face.  Maybe he was just ready to find out what was on the other side.  What lies beyond the grave…

No time to waste, Kol.  You can think later.  For now, get out of here.  Crawl back to your hole.

A glance around the corner reveals nothing.   The alarms continue to ring and…oh fuck…here they come.

Five armed guards with torches heading my way.  I recognize one of them as the guard captain that I had met at the city gate.

Turn the other way…sneak around the back…mad dash towards the next corner.

Damn this leg for slowing me down.

An arrow shot by a crossbowman in the guard tower whizzes past, grazing my arm.   I don’t stick around for the second shot.

“There he is!” someone yells as I duck back through the alley.

Follow the escape route I had planned.

No one here.  Cross the street and into the next alley. Through the door to the abandoned house and push the table against it just in case.  Climb the stairs to the second floor and out the window onto the balcony.   Slowly and carefully…just like I practiced.   Don’t attract attention.  Stick to the shadows.  Use the chimney smoke to obscure your form.  Use the shadow to disguise your shape.  I notice that the humidity has condensed on the rooftops making them slippery and difficult to properly navigate.

Run and jump to the next roof…two steps later and jump again to roll onto the flat roof, there.   Climb the overhang to the red roof, run the length of it to build enough speed to jump to the…grey roof.  Regain your footing and…slip…stumble backwards.   Pull out your knife and jam it through the roof to keep yourself from falling off the edge.

The one detail I had overlooked…the one thing I had forgotten to plan for threatens to ruin me.  Next time I will not be so careless.

Struggle back to your feet, retrieve the knife.  Amazing that no one saw or heard that surely-fatal error.  Maybe the gods just aren’t done with me yet.  Vault over the place where I had pushed past the Fool in the street weeks earlier and I can almost see him sitting there on the ground in the rain…Just another innocent man…and yet, I am now so jaded that I can barely conceive what innocence is.  There is no innocence, I tell myself.  Nothing is pure.  No one is free.  No one deserves to live if I can take their life.  No one deserves to love if I can end their bliss.  No one deserves their wealth if I can burn it all down.

No peace?  Maybe peace is not what I’m looking for.  Maybe peace is just a lie you tell your children to help them sleep at night.   War is all I’ve ever known and blood is all that drives me.

And if this blade finds your heart, and if my aim is true, and if my strength does not fail me, and if your body goes cold…then you have only played into fate’s hand.  Then you are just like me.

Do you believe in fate?

It believes in you.

There is no other deciding factor.

Chapter 9 – Deathhand

“There is no greater honor than to die in battle,” my father began.  “And any true Austmann would gladly die by the sword.”

I have no plans to die just yet.

“There may even be room for an ugly bastard like you in Valhalla’s great hall.”

Too much left to do.

“How does the armor suit you?  I know it’s a little big…”

I still have to find him.

“And the shield?  Made just for you.”

And murder his family.

“And Thursbanr?  Asvald might almost be proud.”

And grind his bones to dust.

The waves broke over the edge of our ship and a million twinkling points of light guided our path.  Our very own map in the sky.

My father ran out of things to say after the first week and so he began to repeat himself.

Valhalla.  Valhalla.  Valhalla.

I think he wanted me to die.  I think he wanted to be rid of me.  He was hoping I didn’t make it home.

I turned over the coffin in my pocket, feeling the runes with my fingers.

A symbol of power or a token of death?  A cursed talisman or a fetish of life?

My savior or my destroyer.

I opened my palm to look at the scar it had given me.  A longish shape with 6 sides…the coffin fit almost exactly into it, like some kind of key.  The key to my future, or my fate, or my doom.

Some of the runes used to be visible in my hand, but they had since faded, leaving only an ugly blotch behind.  A symbol of my failure.

My father said he hoped we didn’t run into any sea monsters.

We were headed west to find the people with a lot of gold.

We would probably be cramped on the trip home, he said, as we’d be taking some of them back.

We’d be taking some of them back in chains and we’d turn around and sell or trade them to the people that lived far to the south of us.  They never had enough slaves.

My father said he hoped my sword didn’t get stuck in my scabbard like poor Asvald.

I think he wanted me to die.

One morning we came to a river that led inland.   One of the men said that the people here always built their cities on rivers and that we were bound to find something here.

The dragon on our ship’s bow winked at the trees that lined the muddy river banks.

You know why we’re here, old friends, and you’ve nothing to fear.  I can’t breathe fire while I’m stuck to this ship.  Tell us where the men are…tell us where the gold is…

…and the trees that lined the muddy river banks swayed in the summer breeze.

Another two days of sailing downriver and we caught sight of a farm house.  The dragon on our ship’s bow winked at the men working in the fields, but they couldn’t understand him.  Through their eyes he was breathing fire.

Flaming arrows were shot from one of the ships ahead of us and the farmhouse was soon ablaze.  One of our ships docked and the men working in the fields were gutted as they tried to run.

My father said that there was no gold here, but we didn’t want them ruining our surprise.

My father said that this meant we’d come to a city soon.

Another farmhouse received the same treatment.

And another.

One of the men working in the fields tried to fight with his pitchfork instead of running and we cut his head off and hung it on the bow of our ship.

The dragon winked as the blood ran into his eyes and mouth.

A grey mass could be seen in the distance and my father said that it was a city.

As we got closer I could see the gates begin to swing shut and a horn sounded.

We docked our boats and began to make camp.

The next few days were spent constructing siege equipment.  One of our men was a skilled engineer and he said they would be necessary to destroy the city’s fortifications.

The eastern side of the city was not walled, and nestled up against the river we had sailed in on.  The north and south walls each had a gate with two artillery towers and the western wall had a single tower in its center.  The plan was to deploy the catapults and mangonels on the eastern wall to destroy the sole tower there where we would be out of range of the other towers and breach the wall.  The forward force would rush the breach and when they had entered the city, the reserve force would sail in and dock on the eastern edge while the guards were occupied with the breach.

My father and I were to be part of the forward force and we were to kill anyone that offered any resistance, including women and children, although these were more valuable alive than dead.

The attack began the following day.  We moved fast so that the city would not have time to receive reinforcements.

I was allowed to help with loading the stones into one of the mangonels and I marveled as each giant boulder flung through the air, smashing into the wall so far away.  Some were loaded with flaming bundles of lumber instead of boulders and they whistled as they were sent into the sky, leaving a trail of embers and smoke behind, one by one, like miniature comets.

The single guard tower fired back but was vastly outgunned and we received minimal damage.  The wall began to crumble in several places and the guard tower was soon decimated.

My father said that it was almost time and he made some last minute adjustments to my armor and put on my helmet.  I complained that the armor was too big and made it hard for me to move around.  I complained that the helmet made it hard to see.

Fires began to break out at several places inside the city and acrid smoke filled the air.

I helped load another boulder into the mangonel and watched as it soared towards the city wall, finally smashing through and making an opening that we could fit through.  Within seconds men began to pour out of the city, some armored and with sword, some with simple clothes and wood axes.

The dragon on our ship’s bow winked as they screamed towards us.

My father said we thought this might happen, and our plan was almost the same.  We were to wait until they got a little closer and charge and once we had clashed with them the reserve force was to ride in by horse and attack their rear.

They should have used their archers, he said, as the men began to load their bows and aim skyward.

Hold…hold…hold…fire!  And I watched the volley of arrows arc into the charging men and some of them collapsed to the ground.

And the second volley found its mark.

And the third volley sent them reeling.

“Charge!!! Charge!!! Charge!!!” our elder said and the men began to run.   I drew my sword and ran with it above my head, yelling like the other men did.

Watching the world race by through the tiny window in my oversized helmet, I could feel my heart beating louder and louder.  My breath came fast and shallow and I began to drip with sweat.  Run, run, run, Kol, run.   Show them who you can be.

Down a hill and up a hill and clear the crest of another and BAM face first into the enemy.  Skid to a halt and swing.

The first man crumpled before me and I pulled back and swung again, this time catching only air.

I found myself off-balance and as I tried to recover I felt a heavy THUD on my shoulder as my armor absorbed a blow.  I turned to strike again, and this time Thursbanr found my would-be slayer, piercing him through the gut.  I could see fear…fear in his eyes…fear in all of their eyes.

And the dragon on our ship’s bow winked as I pulled my sword out of the dying man.

Another man came at me with an axe and I raised my shield as it collided into the freshly painted wood.  The blade came through just enough to bite at my arm that held the shield.  I gritted my teeth and swung at the man, cutting him across the chest.  He let go of the battleaxe still sticking through my shield and stumbled backwards as I swung again, severing his head.

I had to drop the shield…the axe kept tearing at my arm and it was too unwieldy now.  I threw it down and put my foot on it and pulled out the axe.  I could feel the blood dripping down my arm and I grimaced as I raised the axe, realizing that the earlier hit to my shoulder was not entirely deflected by my armor.

Smile, Kol, and think of the coffin.  Think of your mother.  Feel your ruined face and let it take you away…

Throw off my helmet…I didn’t need it anymore.  Take off your breastplate and let the blood flow freely.  Mist come and take me…and I felt as though I was looking through a red fog.   Anything extraneous was gone and there were only my enemies, with their knives and spears, axes and clubs.

Another came but I was too fast for him now…too focused…and my axe found his leg an easy mark.  Behind me now and Thursbanr drove right through his neck.  Blood splattered on my face and chest and yet they kept coming.

Who’s next?  Do I appear so easy a target?

You, with the spear, come and see how your advantage fairs.

Too slow, friend, and I sidestepped your feeble attack and cracked your spear in two with my boot.

Spin, now, Kol, a whirlwind of death and three more fell to axe and sword.

You think I have lost my balance, that you have found my weakness?  I’ll slice you from brow to groin.

And you?  And you?  And you?

Your shields will crack to splinters and your swords will be flung away.  Your axes will not take hold and your spears will stab at the places I used to be.

And you?  Will you face me and find your intestines on the ground?  Will your skull crack open and your brains seep out?  Will your arms or legs be torn away, leaving only bloody stumps behind?

My head was pounding now and my heart felt like it would explode.

My vision was locked to a ruinous slit and I could see only red.  Impossible to tell friend from foe.

Some of them had turned to flee and yet there were still more.  Behind me, before me, surrounding me.

I turned and swung and Thursbanr found another mark, but someone gripped me from behind.   I smashed my elbow into his face and brought the axe down onto him.

I swung again…this pack of wolves will not take me.

The taste of bile in my throat and I could hardly breathe…a sharp pain in the back of my head and I fell to my knees.

Someone threw a net over me and kicked me in the face.  My weapons were wrestled away and I could hear a familiar voice.

“…K…Kol?  It’s over, son…we’ve won.  You can…you can stop fighting now.”

And the dragon on our ship’s bow winked.

Chapter 10:  Heads or Tails

I passed that night huddled in one of my less common spots.  It was uncomfortable, cramped and damp, but saw little traffic.   From the peak of shadow to the first glint of dawn, the alarm bells continued to ring and guards hustled here and there.  No one passed my way and no one asked me any questions.

I spent most of the night running through the events in my head.   Where could I have been faster?  Where could I have been stronger?   What were the flaws in my plan?  I suffered only a minor wound but, still, I had been seen…If only for a moment.

I realized at one point that I had forgotten about the blade…the blade with the pearl handle that I was supposed to leave as evidence, but it was too late now.   I decided to leave it here when I went to meet Brand at noon and ask him what he wanted me to do.   I knew I had fucked up and I didn’t want to fuck up further, or by chance get seen dropping it somewhere by some nosy old lady.

I managed to sleep for a couple hours when the sun had come up and then I headed back to the tavern to wait for Brand.

I walked in from the early morning sun to find the Troll’s Breath every bit as dark and gloomy as it was at night.  There were no windows.  A few people were scattered about and I took a seat at the bar to order a drink.  Before the barmaid could even give me my drink I was tapped on the shoulder by the same crook-nosed pale-faced rat that had approached me last time and, again, I hadn’t seen him coming, the sneaky bastard.

“Don’t say anything,” he whispered, “Just watch where I go, finish your drink, and follow me when you’re done.”

The barmaid came over to deliver my mead as I watched The Rat scuttle to the back of the bar and open a door that I hadn’t seen before.

As I was paying for my pint the front door opened and in came the guard captain and two guards.

Be calm, Kol.   They don’t know anything.   Mind your own business and drink your drink.

I sat, looking straight ahead, pretending to study the bottles that were shelved behind the bar when the two seats next to me were pulled out and the guard captain sat to my left while a guard sat to my right.  I glanced behind me to see the other guard standing at the door.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” said the guard captain.  “I thought it stunk worse than usual in this dump.”

Take it, Kol.   Don’t be stupid.  Don’t give them a reason.

I took a slow sip of my drink before saying , “Something I can do for you?  I was busy trying to make the place smell like home.”

Never was much for humor.

“I’ll be happy to slap that smirk off your face if you don’t keep your mouth shut and listen,” he said.

“I’m listening and, again, what can I do for you?

“Yeah.  Where were you last night?”

“Sleeping…or trying to.   Not that easy with those bells ringing all night and you lot clanging around all over the place.”

“None of the guards reported seeing you where you usually lay your lousy head.”

“None of your guards are worth a shit then, or they’d know that I have a few ‘usual spots’, not just the one by the square.  I was lucky too, ‘cause no one bothered me all night.”

“What did I tell you about that smirk…Warlock, they tell me you’re called now?  I prefer barbarian scum.”

I sighed and took and took another drink of my mead.  Play the part.  “I don’t care what you call me, but I’m not bothering anyone here so, do you mind giving me a little space?  What happened anyway?”

“A certain…unpopular…individual was murdered, not that it’s any of your business.   Some might say he had it coming, but we don’t tolerate that sort of thing in Turtannus.  We try to keep this place safe and you trash down here step on us every chance you get.  We’ll find out who did this, and he’ll be hanging by week’s end.  Mark my words, scum,” said the captain as he pushed out his chair to get up.

“Oh, and don’t try to leave town.  We’ll be watching you,” he called from the front door as he and the guards were leaving.

I waited for a few minutes to be sure they weren’t coming back, finished my mead and headed to the back of the bar to the door that The Rat had opened earlier.

The door led to a stone staircase that went downward.  I descended the stairs and came to a crumbling hallway with water dripping through cracks in the ceiling and a torch hung on the wall mid way.  A large man that I didn’t recognize stood in front of the only door, which was at the other end.

“Stop,” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m Kol.   Supposed to meet Brand.”

“Oh are ya now?  Is that what ya told Reynard?” said the man as he cracked his knuckles.

“Reynard?  I guess you mean the guard captain?  I didn’t tell him anything.  He just doesn’t like me.”

The man paused for a moment, studying me.  He stared at me and I stared back, no expression on my face, and none on his.

After what seemed like a long time, he concluded “Alright, but know that if you’re lying you’re dead, one way or the other,” and knocked three times on the door.

The door unbolted from the inside and swung open and I could see Brand, the Rat, and a few of the others that had been with them at our first meeting seated at a large round table.  There were piles of coins stacked on the table as well as various bottles and cups.  Brand motioned for me to come in.

“Have a seat, Warlock,” said Brand and pointed at an empty chair opposite the table from him.

“Call me Kol,” I said as I sat down.

“I’ll call you maggot-infested horse-shit if I damn well please, Warlock, and you’ll do damn well to remember it.  Especially if you keep fucking things up!” replied Brand as I felt two giant hands come to rest on my shoulders.  “That guy there?  He’ll snap your neck like a twig and send your rotting corpse to Reynard with a signed confession if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”

I glanced behind me to see that it was the same man who had been guarding the door.

I could take him if I had to.

Breathe, Kol, breathe.   Now is not the time.

Close your eyes and breathe.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you, you scum fucker.  What happened to the dagger?  You dimwit.  I was counting on you,” continued Brand, while the other men at the table were laughing and drinking and making jokes with one another.

Breathe, Kol.

“The dagger!” brand slammed his fist on the table and stood up.  “Where is it?”

I could taste bile in my throat and my muscles began to tighten.   The mist began to creep into the room, lying low on the floor.

I took one more deep breath before saying, “I still have it.  I know, I was supposed to leave it, but at least the man is dead, no?  Most of the job was finished.”

“You think I give a fuck about the life of some…beggar?  You idiot!  You fucked up, Warlock, and you cost me a lot of money.  The dagger was the whole point.  The dagger was the reason.”

Money…gambling.  I killed that man for sport?  I had figured before that the dagger was for some sort of set-up, that someone had to take the blame.  It hadn’t occurred to me that this was just a game, fool that I am.

I wondered for just a second who it was that was supposed to take the fall.  Someone rich, considering the quality of that blade.  Why…why?  Who cares Kol, this is the first opportunity you’ve had since coming here, don’t screw it up.  Make I can finally pay back Edwin now.

And the men at the table just kept laughing.

Brand sighed a heavy sigh and said, “What am I going to do with you?  To be fair, it was a…difficult first mission.”

“The odds were against you, and shut your damn mouth, Caspar, I’ve had enough of your gloating,” he said and shot a glance at one of the men.

Caspar, a short, fat, balding man, with an overly red, round face and expensive looking clothes took this opportunity to do something besides guffaw and said, “You’re just mad that you lost, Brand.  Maybe this Warlock ain’t as tough as he looks.”

I could smell his perfume from across the table.

Sensing that Brand was the only important person to me here, I responded, “Try me, fat man.  Maybe I can help Brand make some of his money back.”

At that, the expressions on Caspar and Brand’s faces traded places and Brand stood up laughing, and said, “I knew I liked you, Warlock.  So how ‘bout it, Caspar.  Think you got what it takes?”

The fat man leaned back in his chair and said “Well, maybe not today,” as he poured himself another drink and shot a dirty look in my direction.

“Well, Kol.  You really messed this up, but I think I may have a use for you yet,” said Brand as he tossed a single gold coin from one of the piles that lay on the table to me.  “Come see me next week.”

Well, maybe now I can eat for a couple of days.

Chapter ??  The Ivory Coffin

I had known Hette since her family had moved to my village when we were children.

We had grown up together in the hilly village of Eingarten on the banks of the Edelstein river and, as children, we had frequently quarreled.   Nothing serious, mind you, just the usual bickering of children.

When I got a little bit older, I began to notice how beautiful she was…how her hair shone in the sun as she picked flowers with her mother and sisters.

I was a shy boy, but she was always so vibrant…so full of life.

One night during the celebration of the vernal equinox, as I sat alone listening to the musicians play, she came and sat next to me.  My heart skipped a beat but I tried to hide my feelings from her.  We talked and laughed for hours and yelled out to the minstrels to play our favorite songs, and it seemed to me that I would never come any closer to heaven.

She sang along sometimes and I became captivated by her golden voice that matched her golden hair.

When the night was drawing to a close, she took my hand in hers, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.  I could feel the blood rushing to my face as my uncle Claus said “Way to go, Clement!” but I knew, then and there, that Hette was the girl that I would marry.

From there, we grew closer and closer, yet the closer I got to her, the closer she wanted me to be.  There were certain secrets I wanted to keep, and she would push and push and push until I got angry.  She got angry, too.  She didn’t think my feelings were true.  She said that if I truly loved her, I would tell her anything.  She said that if I truly wanted her, I would give myself to her fully.   But…I was still a shy boy.  Why couldn’t she understand?  I loved you, Hette…more than you could have ever possibly known.

I should have just told you exactly how I felt.

I began to notice there was a darkness in her.  She heard people that no one else could hear.  She saw things that no one else could see.  And these ghosts or demons…they told her that I was untrue.  They told her that she needed to run away.  They told her that she needed to find someone else, someone from her past or her future.  Someone that had meant something once.

We called on the wise woman, Unn, to drive away the darkness and it seemed to work for a while…but soon they were back again.

What could I have done?  “Go,” I told her, “I don’t want to keep you from your happiness…and if it isn’t me that makes you happy then I won’t be happy, either.”

And so she went…

For weeks, she was gone, and I kept telling myself that she would be back in my arms and that everything would be perfect with us again.  For weeks I told myself that I had made the right decision.  That by letting her be free, I gave her everything she needed.  That she would find her way back to me.

When she came home, I was lying awake in our bed, trying to sleep.  She came in and kissed me and I could immediately tell that something was wrong.  What had happened to my beautiful Hette?  Where had she been?

She said she had gone to visit an old friend…a friend she had known since before we had met.  She said she just needed to get away for a while.  She said she was sure now…and that it was me.  It had always been me, yet things only got worse.

Once, around the time that Hette and I had first met, I had mentioned to a friend of mine that an acquaintance of hers’ was pretty.  I said, “Hey, Hette should introduce you to Ayla, she’s really pretty.”  It was in front of Hette that I said this, and she became insanely jealous.  Not a week went by after that, that she did not burst into tears and accuse me of being unfaithful with Ayla.

If I glanced at a girl that walked down the street or talked too long to the girl that ran the store, it meant I was sleeping with them behind her back.   If I took too long plowing the field, it meant that I did not want to spend time with her.

She began to drink too much…and every time she drank she found a reason to pick a fight with me.

The next day she would apologize…She would cry and beg for forgiveness…she would blame it on the demons or ghosts that haunted her.  And yet…she always believed that I did not love her.  That I was looking for something else.  She always felt that she was not good enough for me.

Eventually I had decided that we needed to spend some time apart…some time to think about things.  In truth, I intended to run away and never come back…I had reached my wit’s end…but in the end my heart belonged to her and only her.

I moved to a neighboring village and occasionally I would go to visit her.  The time we spent together I alternately looked forward to or dreaded.  The odds were equal that I would either see the love that I had lost, or the reasons I had chosen to leave.

After a time, I decided that we had done this long enough and I told her I didn’t want to see her anymore.  It broke my heart, I swear to you, but I didn’t know what else to do.

She began to see another man, Jeck.  I had been friends with him for years and always liked him…I had spoken highly of him.  On one of my final visits with her, she told me that he had been taking care of her.  That she had been sick and that he had watched over her.  She told me that they were just friends.  I saw a poem he had written her, wishing that she got well soon.  “No intentions,” it said.

He was much older than her and had been married before.  I saw through him.  I saw what he wanted and I tried to warn her.  She had moved in with him.  He owned a house and offered her a life of ease.  She didn’t want to hear me, she didn’t want to listen.

Soon they began sharing the same bed and I couldn’t take it any more…my true love…my one and only…yet, I hoped she just needed some time.

For months I sent no letters and heard nothing from her and then one day, a letter came in the mail.  It said, “You were right.  He is no good for me.  I’m sorry.  Can I see you?”

I immediately packed a bag and travelled back to Eingarten to see her.  She looked so beautiful and I remembered again why I loved her.  I held her close and her smell and her touch intoxicated me.  We sat and talked for hours and I asked her to please come home with me.  She said that she couldn’t…but that she would see me tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and when I went to see her, she told me that she had decided to work things out with Jeck…That she was sorry…that she had made a mistake…that she didn’t want to see me again.

I was crushed…absolutely and completely.  I felt betrayed and used.

I became angry…I called her and her new lover all manner of names…I told her again that she was making a mistake.  I told her again that I loved her…that I loved her more than anything.  What a fool I felt like, when I realized that she no longer felt the same.

What a fool I was.

Another month passed and another letter came. She said that she was sure this time…that it was done with her and him and, again, I dropped everything to run to her.  Again we talked for hours and this time we spent the night together.  Nothing could have made me happier.

When the morning came, she was gone, and she had left a letter in her place.  It said, “I’m sorry, but I realized that we aren’t the same anymore, and I am going back to him.”

…how can one person do this to another?  Have you no feelings at all?  Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?  I decided then and there that I would never speak to her again and that I never wanted to see her ever again…but what is true love if it cannot transcend all obstacles?

A year later, I decided that I had to go see her.  Thoughts of her had never left my mind, and I realized that I couldn’t live without her any longer.  I was going to do whatever it took to win her back, no matter the cost.  I was prepared to stand naked in the rain and profess my undying love for her with the whole village watching.  I was prepared to sing a song praising her beauty even though I had no musical talent.

When I reached Eingarten, the townsfolk were all gathered outside.  When my uncle saw me coming he ran up to me, saying, “You heard the news already?  I’m so sorry, Clement…I don’t even know what to say.”

“News?” I said.  “What news?  I’ve come to see Hette.”

At that, the color drained from his face and I began to understand what had happened.  I pushed through the crowd and there I saw her…her beautiful face was cut off from her body.  I ran over to her and put my arms around her…no…no…no…how can this be?  “Who did this?” I inquired.

It was Jeck…he had discovered her with another man…and he was extremely jealous.

He had fled in the night.

I spent the next months searching for him but found no trace.  He had disappeared and eventually I had no choice but to give up.  I was no hunter of men.

I returned home to Eingarten and at her grave among the flowers I found a coffin.  A tiny ivory coffin.  I don’t know who put it there.

It is with despair, now, that I carve these final words…a poem for my lost love…I hope to see you again in the afterlife, Hette.  My one and only…I can’t go on without you.

I join my lovely lady tonight.